Last week I spent a couple of days in Darmstadt, at the second meeting of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies (S.NET). This is a relatively informal group of scholars in the field of Science and Technology Studies from Europe, the USA and some other countries like Brazil and India, coming together from disciplines like philosophy, political science, law, innovation studies and sociology.
Arie Rip (president of the society, and to many the doyen of European science and technology studies) kicked things off with the assertion that nanotechnology is, above all, a socio-political project, and the warning that this object of study was in the process of disappearing (a theme that recurred throughout the conference). Not to be worried by this prospect, Arie observed that their society could keep its acronym and rename itself the Society for the Study of Newly Emerging Technologies.
The first plenary lecture was from the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, on Knowledge, Industry and Distrust at the Time of Hyperminiaturisation. I have to say I found this hard going; the presentation was dense with technical terms and delivered by reading a prepared text. But I’m wiser about it now than I was, thanks to a very clear and patient explanation from Colin Milburn over dinner that evening, who filled us in with the necessary background about Derrida’s intepretation of Plato’s pharmakon, and Simondon’s notion of disindividuation.
One highlight for me was a talk by Michael Bennett about changes in the intellectual property regime in the USA during the 1980’s and 1990’s. He made a really convincing case that the growth of nanotechnology went in parallel with a series of legal and administrative changes that amounted to a substantial intensification of the intellectual property regime in the USA. While some people think that developments in law struggle to keep up with science and technology, he argued instead that law bookends the development of technoscience, both shaping the emergence of the science and dominating the way it is applied. This growing influence, though, doesn’t help innovation. Recent trends, such as the tendency of research universities to patent early with very wide claims, and to seek exclusive licenses, aren’t helpful; we’re seeing the creation of “patent thickets”, such as the one that surrounds carbon nanotubes, which substantially add to the cost and increase uncertainty for those trying to commercialise technologies in this area. And there is evidence of an “anti-commons” effect, where other scientists are inhibited from working on systems when patents have been issued.
A round-table discussion on the influence of Feynman’s lecture “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” on the emergence of nanotechnology as a field produced some suprises too. I’m already familiar with Chris Tuomey’s careful demonstration that Plenty of Room’s status as the foundation of nanotechnology was largely granted retrospectively (see, for example, his article Apostolic Succession, PDF); Cyrus Mody‘s account of the influence it had on the then emerging field of microelectronics adds some shade to this picture. Colin Milburn made some comments that put Feynman’s lecture into the cultural context of its time; particularly in the debt it owed to science fiction stories like Robert Heinlein’s “Waldo”. And, to my great surprise, he reminded us just how weird the milieu of post-war Pasadena was; the very odd figure of Jack Parsons helping to create the Jet Propulsion Laboratory while at the same time conducting a programme of magic inspired by Aleister Crowley and involving a young L. Ron Hubbard. At this point I felt I’d stumbled out of an interesting discussion of a by-way of the history of science into the plot of an unfinished Thomas Pynchon novel.
The philosopher Andrew Light talked about how deep disagreements and culture wars arise, and the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic objections to new technologies. This was an interesting analysis, though I didn’t entirely agree with his prescriptions, and a number of other participants were showing some some unease at the idea that the role of philosophers is to create a positive environment for innovation. My own talk was a bit of a retrospective, with the title “What has nanotechnology taught us about contemporary technoscience?” The organisers will be trying to persuade me to write this up for the proceedings volume, so I’ll say no more about this for the moment.